Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Grapes of Minor Irritation

When I first announced the publication of Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead on my movie website, I made a point of issuing a trio of apologies to my friends in various geographical locations.

While the apologies were mostly tongue in cheek, there was an element of sincerity in all of them. And, in fact, it occurs to me that they could all do with a bit of elaboration. So with this post I hereby kick off the official Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead apology tour.

To my friends in and from California: I apologize for the characters’ bad attitude toward the place where they live.

I actually did agonize over the fear that the book would make the southern San Joaquin Valley sound like a very grim place to live. After all, a lot of people there are still trying to get over the impression left by John Steinbeck when he wrote The Grapes of Wrath. My home town got mentioned in that book twice. There is a famous photo, taken in 1939, of three men ceremonially burning a copy of The Grapes of Wrath in downtown Bakersfield. Two of the men are farmers from my local area.

Growing up, I remember hearing whispers about Steinbeck’s book and how it was “banned.” But the fact was that I had no trouble whatsoever finding a copy in the school library and checking it out and reading it. The book was never banned. Those three men in the photo (the third was an actual migrant farmworker) were burning a single copy as a protest. It was not an attempt to destroy every copy and to make the book unavailable for curious readers. But the act of burning a book carries unfortunate sinister resonances, and so it probably did not help the case they were trying to make—that farmers were victims of character assassination.

As a reader, I appreciated Steinbeck’s literary prowess and even his socio-political passion but, as someone who grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, I did not recognize the picture he painted of the region. In particular, Tom Joad’s climactic speech (immortalized in John Ford’s 1940 film adaptation by Henry Fonda: “wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there”) was stirring but I never saw any connection between it and where I grew up. I had definitely heard stories of tough times during the migrations of the Depression and the Dust Bowl era, but much more often than not those stories ended with people’s lives improving and even prospering. Between farming and oil drilling, a lot of people—at all levels of the economic ladder—made a lot of money in the years following the migrant influx.

In writing my own novel, I was very conscious of Kern County’s place in literary history, and I made a point of referring to it by having my narrator, Dallas Green, recall that his own parents and grandparents had migrated to California and now were doing so well that they had left the field work to newer migrants from Mexico.

Dallas complains a lot about where he lives but not so much because it is truly a terrible place but because he is a teenager. He does go on a lot about how hot it is in the summer, and that is definitely true. It is very hot there in the summer. And in those days a lot of us lived in homes that didn’t have adequate cooling. But, leaving the climate aside, there were a lot of good people. And I hope that comes through in my book—even though Dallas doesn’t particularly dwell on it.

What really doesn’t get reflected by the book—and, in fairness, it was meant to be a work of literature and not a chamber of commerce brochure—is the diversity of the area. Dallas and Lonnie are from a sort of redneck subset of the population, but my community also had people from all over the rest of America. My mother grew up as part of a German-speaking community of Mennonites. There was a well-established Mexican-American community that had lived in the area since the days of the Mexican Revolution. Other towns had their Italian-American community or their Armenian-American community or their African-American community. Out in the country there were families of Basque sheepherders.

Even though it has been many decades since I lived in the San Joaquin Valley, I have never ceased to think that it was a very good place to be from. In fact, the next Speaker of the House of Representatives could quite likely be from there as well. Kevin McCarthy started a business in Bakersfield at the age of 18 with the winnings from a lottery ticket he bought while visiting San Diego. As he recounted in a speech in February, “True story. $5,000 was the most money you could win. But if you put yourself back in 1984, you’re 18 years old, you just won $5,000 and you’re 10 minutes away from Tijuana, where would you end up?”

Sounds to me like Representative McCarthy just missed his chance to be the next generation’s Dallas Green.